Common Sense

March 1, 2000
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Barry Shrage

Carl’s essay describes many of the critical issues faced by our national system in a time of radical change. He is right on target when he writes that “the most effective and efficient national service mechanism will not, in the long run, generate enthusiasm and loyalty from individuals or individual Federations unless also connected to larger issues and larger dreams.” He may be wrong, however, in linking these new “larger dreams” to an old question: To what extent will local communities be willing to “reduce their autonomy in order to collectively address common issues?” This may well be the wrong question being asked at exactly the wrong moment in American Jewish history.

While it is tempting to think about our current challenge in constitutional terms (as if the UJC were the Federal Government and the Federations the states!), it is important to remember that the UJC is not a government and neither are local Federations. We don’t have governmental power and we certainly can’t tax. Our work is not and cannot be about reducing autonomy. It is about harnessing choice, autonomy, joy, and passion to a common vision. Our system has always, even in times of terrible crisis, been a voluntary association of donors and organizations. When we worked hard to communicate our mission, most Federations cooperated in meeting significant international needs. But when we simply demanded 50 percent and threatened those who asked questions, the entire structure of Federation life began to deteriorate. As donors and Federations demand more autonomy (not less!), the system will need to work harder to bind our very autonomous parts together with passion and vision.

The central struggle of the new system is the development of a new shared vision. All of our intellectual energy must be devoted to open, energizing debate on this issue. Unfortunately, we are very far from identifying common vision on behalf of which we might want to “reduce our autonomy,” even if this were an appropriate goal. Much of the current debate is simply out of sync with the real needs of the Jewish community. The grassroots of the Jewish community is desperately seeking spirituality and Jewish learning and returning to their synagogues. The mega-donors are so desperate to address the “renaissance” challenge and so sure that the Federations are not ready to address the issue that they are investing tens of millions of dollars and literally “doing it themselves.” Even knowing this, our Federation movement will spend the next two years arguing about “mandatory collective responsibility” for the Jewish Agency and overseas needs. Those needs must and will be met, but mustn’t become the obsessive core of our work together.

There are two very different perspectives on the future of our movement, but life is too short and the real work is too demanding to spend much time trying to bridge unbridgeable gaps. The recent Wall Street Journal article captured the dichotomy well: Will overseas needs and “sacred survival” continue to be the glue that holds our system together or will we allow the new “renaissance” theme to fully develop? Until a new overarching vision develops for the American Jewish community, individual Federations can, should, indeed must pursue their own visions. Right now our system needs diversity and creativity far more than collectivity and uniformity, if it is to continue to provide leadership, or even serve a useful purpose for the American Jewish community.

Beyond the reality of a new vision, it is becoming increasingly clear that a new generation of donors requires (and is demanding) more direct connection to smaller scale, more personal charities with less bureaucracy and more ability to “make a difference.” But if “donor choice” is part of the answer, we still need to assure that communal needs are met and that our Federations can continue to generate a sense of overarching community and Jewish peoplehood. In a world of donor choice, what will be the “value added” of the Federation?

Perhaps we must redefine “collective responsibility” and think about addressing even large-scale challenges through a network of small-scale, community-based, donor-supported voluntary efforts linked to a national plan. The Boston CJP has successfully experimented with this type of partnership and entrepreneurship, both in the Boston-Haifa link and the CJP’s work in Dnepropetrovsk. The more flexibility we demonstrated in international initiatives, the more our donors wanted to participate in building a Jewish renaissance stretching from Boston to Haifa to Dnepropetrovsk.

The American Jewish community is desperate for real leadership. The UJC will not collapse. Those who claim that the new system is “fragile” and requires conformity and stability to survive are simply wrong. The Federation movement needs a trade association to provide service and represent its needs to the larger world. The UJC will always fill that role. But the American Jewish community needs much more: vision, leadership, commitment, shared values, faith in the Jewish people and in our mission-the creation of a sacred community built on Torah, the service of God and acts of lovingkindness.

The UJC must aspire to this great responsibility if it expects to truly lead the American Jewish community.

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Barry Shrage is the President of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. A fuller discussion of these issues can be found in two new papers--"Unity and Self-Determination, Ownership and Independence" and "Creating a New Vision for the American Jewish Community: The Challenge of Developing Leaders and Storytellers for Our Future"--available at

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